My Early Days at SJSM@Raffles Hall

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Orientation 84/85 was over. The twin headed Phoenix had arisen for the year at Kent Ridge. It was time to cleanse our souls of our almost blasphemous indulgence conjured up by the RH Freshmen Welcoming Orientation Committee.

I have no recollection of who suggested St. John’s-St. Margaret’s Church, or more endearingly short-named SJSM. We needed to gather as in the habits of our spiritual forefathers. We needed to be part of the spiritual family. We needed a spiritual home, a church. A nearby one, a convenient one, for we had just moved from RH@Nassim to Kent Ridge.

We got together, not by any prior design or pact, that fateful Sunday morning, just the eight of us. Surely, we were being shepherded by some unseen divine hands for a divine purpose. Some last minute chatter and direction, and off we set forth into the unfamiliar, unknown.

Some wondered what would this church be like? Others thought it was a Catholic Church for the name sounded catholic, and Catholics, we were not. We alighted from the bus at Dover Road, and walked toward the church, curious and anxious, for SJSM was still hidden amongst the trees.

At the entrance, we were captivated mostly by the parked cars, very expensive looking ones, and there were so many of them. No tombstones or graveyard. The church seemed rather quaint nestled alone on top of the hillock, unremarkable. It was charming architecturally nonetheless. Our imagination started to wreck havoc. SJSM must be a very traditional church, almost Catholic, for the rich upper class while we were young and rather impoverished undergraduates, misfits.

Butterflies started to flutter in our stomachs, our feet went fluid lead. Our minds nervous, shrieked retreat. Thankfully, our hearts took comfort in the gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit, I believed, somehow and we were fortified and forged ahead. The 1st Service was just over. Churchgoers began to stream out. Amongst them were Tony Tan who went on to become the country’s present President and the then country’s only 4-star General Winston Choo. We overawed and felt nervously small, or was it just me?

We found out much later that they were formerly worshiping as a church planted by St. Andrew’s Cathedral at St. Margaret Secondary School, before moving into the then vacant St. John’s British Garrison Church a decade prior, 28 Nov 1971 to be exact. Then, the church was the only structure in the whole Dover area and most probably with a graveyard beside.

Anyway, the bell tolled for the 2nd Service. Strangely, they still tolled the bell to call to service at this time and age. Interesting though it may be but it was still rather archaic, not just traditional. We were warmly welcomed by the ushers. We entered the sanctuary nervously and sat still on the pews solemn in silent prayers. Almost Catholic, SJSM was Anglican, the Church of England, a high Anglican to be more precise.

The musical instruments were rudimentary and broken, comprising a guitar, bongo drums, tambourines and a “deflated” ancient pipe organ. The Pastor then, Rev Roger Campbell, was a tall, balding and gangly Englishman, an approachable and fatherly man of the cloth. Congregation size was in the region of one hundred or so souls, quite small and cosy enough. We were told that unlike the 1st Service, they were mainly from a cell group in Ghim Moh, not a very Anglican congregation.

The worship leader led us in lively praise and worship. It was majestic and heavenly. We sang mostly contemporary praise and worship songs interspersed with traditional hymns. They blended together beautifully. Music accompaniments were splendid despite the obvious mismatch and disrepair. And how could I forget the tall, lanky and very loud Chinese fellow, bordering lunacy, almost. Give Vincent a tambourine anytime, he would either bring the church roof down or get the whole church singing, dancing and marching around the church. O such freedom, such joy and such exuberance. Indeed, in Christ we were set free!

The message was delivered in perfect Queen’s English, well-balanced on the centrality of the Word, both edifying and uplifting. No hell’s fire and brimstone or lightning from above like prophets of old. Not boring, I must say. None dozed off and none went berserk or “charis-maniac” either. Roger was, unlike Percy, the more sober Campbell.

After closing prayer and service, we were immediately the centre of attention as we came on our own accord, uninvited, firsts from NUS, we were told. Our souls were cleansed, our spirits refreshed and our bodies fortified. We found our spiritual home, a warm and balanced one indeed. We were welcome into the fold. We were blest.

We started to recommend SJSM to our fellow RHafflesians, and in no time, and over the years the eight multiplied into the hundreds. Many in SJSM today were from RH, and quite a number amongst them have heeded higher calling and ventured into the harvest field, in the country and beyond. Truly, SJSM had freely blest RHafflesians, and the Lord had returned the blessings in manifold abundance.

We were grateful, privileged and honoured, to be the early catalyst links between RH and SJSM. To God we give all the glory and honour for bringing to pass the plan he had for us. Amen.

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